08 Puccini RondinePuccini – La Rondine
Dinara Alieva; Charles Castronovo; Orchestra and Chorus of the Deutsche Oper Berlin; Roberto Rizzi Brignoli
Delos DV 7010

In Puccini’s unfairly neglected La Rondine two souls are desperately in love, but predestined to fail due to societal forces and pressures that destroy their happiness. La Traviata comes immediately to mind, and this became one of the problems hampering its success, but the comparison is wrong. In Verdi, Violetta’s love never falters, while here the heroine is simply unable to break with her past and choose freedom (like a swallow), arbitrarily ending the relationship.

Rolando Villazón whom the Deutsche Oper Berlin picked to direct the opera saw the problem very clearly and very differently from average past productions. He embedded the tragic conclusion from the very start into the frothy superficial fun-and-games party atmosphere. Three masked men always surround the beautiful heroine representing former rejected lovers, soberly reminding us of her past, and at the end her true love Ruggero also gets a mask and joins the group much like in Bluebeard’s Castle where the three murdered wives are joined by Judith in oblivion.

Deutsche Oper’s new production finally vindicates and reinstates this opera into the repertoire sumptuously presented and resplendent in rich colours. The action moves with an irresistible forward momentum and is directed with virtuoso skill. The second act’s complex crowd scenes are especially memorable. Puccini’s score is harmonically adventurous, full of irresistible melodies and conducted with romantic abandon by Roberto Rizzi Brignoli. The fine, young and talented cast is headed by Dinara Alieva, soprano sensation from Azerbaijan, whose voice is “a gift from heaven” (Montserrat Caballé) absolutely perfect for the role of Magda. French tenor Charles Castronovo, her unfortunate lover, is radiantly expressive, especially in the last act – guaranteed to break your heart. The other couple (Alexandra Hutton and Alvaro Zambrano) reminds us of Marcel/Musette of La Bohème and provides a delightful contrast and comic relief.

09 Bellini NormaBellini – Norma
Radvanovsky; Kunde; Gubanova; Aceto; Vas; Puche; Symphony Orchestra and Choir of the Gran Teatre del Liceu; Renato Palumbo
C Major 737208

On October 6, I attended the opening night of Norma at the COC, a co-production with the opera companies of Barcelona, San Francisco and Chicago, featuring Sondra Radvanovsky in the title role. With this four-city run – she’d already sung it at the Met – Radvanovsky lays claim as today’s pre-eminent Norma. Her thrilling, stentorian top notes, hairpin pianissimi and an edgy, tenebrous timbre reminiscent of Callas, makes this DVD from Barcelona’s Liceu merit comparison with the classic recordings of Callas, Sutherland and Caballé.

Sometimes, however, I’ve found Radvanovsky’s singing overly studied. In Barcelona and Toronto, her Casta Diva seemed too carefully sung, as if she were coolly calculating the placement of every note, rather than being transported in rapturous prayer. She sounded more emotionally involved in her duets with Adalgisa – in Barcelona, a fervent Ekaterina Gubanova – and her love/hate exchanges with Pollione – in Barcelona, the brawny, brassy Gregory Kunde. (She had different co-stars in Toronto.)

A big plus for this production: no Eurotrash-updating! The set and costumes drew inspiration from Game of Thrones, the single set representing the interior of a Druidic fortress-temple, with a severed sacred tree-branch magically suspended in mid-air. Unlike the plodding conducting of Stephen Lord at the COC, Liceu conductor Renato Palumbo kept things moving, generating real tension and excitement.

This DVD provides a splendid showcase for Sondra Radvanovsky, documenting a signature role of this Caledon resident, the GTA’s international operatic superstar.

10 Dorian GrayThomas Agerfeldt Olesen – The Picture of Dorian Gray
Radley; Best; Bobby; Thiele; Hansen; Vinther; Skarby Riddell; Chorus of the Danish National Opera; Aarhus Symphony Orchestra; Joachim Gustafsson
Dacapo 2.110415

The ideas behind this DVD made me curious because, as a longtime operagoer, I wondered how you could have an opera choreographed and with the singers offstage. The Picture of Dorian Gray succeeds on both counts and throws in more appealing aspects to boot.

The Oscar Wilde story is rife with juicy themes around secrets, corruption, the role of art and, of course, the Mephistophelian premise of Dorian Gray selling his soul in exchange for eternal beauty and youth. The production of Thomas Agerfeldt Olesen’s opera has plenty of eye and ear candy that doesn’t discombobulate the viewer with unstaged singers as much as highlight them. Cutaways to singers in the orchestra pit are as intriguing as Met in HD backstage entr’actes. The transformation of the picture of Dorian Gray is effectively conveyed with video art, replacing the need for extensive set use, and the costumes range from modified period pieces to something out of Cirque du Soleil.

Although I don’t have much knowledge of dance, I could appreciate this non-literal interpretation of the tale, which shared the dual role of representing the characters’ sung parts, which was stage director/choreographer Marie Brolin-Tani’s goal. Surprisingly, spoken lines and frequent Broadway-musical-like interludes did not make me protest that this was not opera. The entire production somehow coalesces into a new multi-art genre, and whether that is due to the direction, choreography, score, artists or all of those, it was the type of offering CanStage might co-present. Hmm – must text Matthew Jocelyn…

11 Nyman Man whoMichael Nyman – The Man Who Mistook His Wife For A Hat
Trevino; Sjowall; MacPherson; Nashville Opera; Dean Williamson
Naxos 8.660398

Michael Nyman is a composer particularly suited to opera writing. His understanding of drama has been honed through an impressive number of film soundtracks, ranging from Drowning by Numbers and several more of Peter Greenaway’s movies, including The Cook, The Thief, His Wife and Her Lover, to a brand new score for Sergei Eisenstein’s silent masterpiece Battleship Potemkin. It is a shame then, that he has attempted the operatic idiom only seven and a half times (the “half” is an unfinished opera based on Laurence Sterne’s Tristram Shandy). Furthermore, unlike his film music, Nyman’s operas are not easily available commercially. So it was with a sense of excitement that I approached this disc. Based on a famous case study by the celebrated neurologist, Oliver Sacks, this is a story of a patient with visual agnosia, or object-word confusion. He does indeed call his wife “a hat,” that famous line being used by Sacks’s critics to highlight his less-than-ethical approach to patients’ consent: “The doctor, who mistook his patients for a literary career.”

Nyman, the musician, does not disappoint here – the taut, short score is indeed minimalist (Nyman is credited with inventing this musical term in 1968) and punctuates the dramatic arc perfectly. The only disappointment is the soprano voice of Rebecca Sjöwall as the wife of the title, whose blunt instrument is in a different category from the other principals. Still, this is a rare recording of an important work.

Schubert – Lieder: Nacht und Träume
Ailish Tynan; Iain Burnside
Delphian DCD34165

Duet
Lucy Crowe; William Berger; Iain Burnside
Delphian DCD34167

01a Schubert LiederAn accompanist (or, as we now prefer to write, a collaborative pianist) must be a technically accomplished player. That goes without saying. But he also needs to be more: he needs to be alert to a singer’s every nuance. The two discs reviewed here have one performer in common: the pianist Iain Burnside. He is splendid.

Many of the songs on the Schubert disc are very familiar. Their inclusion came as something of a surprise to me, for Burnside, in a 2009 interview, complained that singers tend to play it safe. He himself felt that he had nothing new to say on the Schubert song cycles. But the record shows that, if singer and pianist are sufficiently committed to the works they perform, these works do not come across as merely routine. The disc includes Schubert’s Ave Maria and I cannot think of any music more familiar. Yet the way Ailish Tynan and Burnside perform it here makes one feel that one has never heard it before. Besides, not everything here is familiar fare; Ave Maria was one of three songs projected by Schubert as a setting of Scott’s The Lady of the Lake. This recording gives us all three songs.

Tynan is an Irish soprano who won the Cardiff Singer of the World recital prize in 2003. She is a lyric soprano who has sung at several of the leading opera houses, including Covent Garden and La Scala. But her main strength would appear to be that of a recitalist. I look forward to hearing her live one day. I have not heard such a fine recital disc by a soprano since the days of Elly Ameling and the young Irmgard Seefried.

01b DuetDuet includes a few solo songs but most of the works here are indeed duets, by Schumann, Mendelssohn and Cornelius. In an accompanying note, Richard Stokes argues that the duet form has fallen out of favour because many artists as well as listeners feel that the form is beneath them. I doubt that is the real reason for the drop in popularity in the duet form. Two centuries ago, domestic music making was a central part of people’s experience and both the solo song and the duet must have played an important part in the rituals of courtship in upper- and middle-class society. Be that as it may, these songs, none of them now familiar, were well worth reviving. They are beautifully performed with the radiance of the soprano (Lucy Crowe) set against the gravity of the baritone (William Berger). Of particular interest is the concluding song, a setting of the poem Wiegenlied by Friedrich Hebbel. When Schumann set the poem, he changed the title to Wiegenlied - am Lager eines kranken Kindes. Stokes is, I am sure, right when he argues that the change in title shows an allusion to the illness and death of Schumann’s infant son Emil.

02 Nathaniel DettR. Nathaniel Dett – The Ordering of Moses
May Festival Chorus; Cincinnati Symphony Orchestra; James Conlon
Bridge Records 9462 (bridgerecords.com)

Review

Canadian-born R. Nathaniel Dett (1882-1943) is without question one of the most significant African/North-American composers of the 20th century. In 1937, near the end of his life, Dett’s magnificent oratorio, The Ordering of Moses (which he described as a “Biblical Folk Scene”) had its world premiere in a performance by the May Festival Chorus and the Cincinnati Orchestra, which was broadcast live throughout the United States by NBC, and was the first network broadcast of a work by an African/North-American composer.

Throughout his life, Dett was a unifier of music, culture and individuals – and in light of the world’s current condition, his oratorio, linking the Israelite exodus from Egypt and slavery with the northern exodus (via the Underground Railroad and beyond) of the African-American peoples is as meaningful now as when it was composed. The orchestration and composition is lush, dynamic, thrilling and harmonically complex while still gracefully embracing American folk and negro spiritual motifs. The juxtaposition of the dynamic chorus with the rich, sonorous vocal instruments of the skilled soloists (soprano Latonia Moore, mezzo-soprano Ronnita Nicole Miller, tenor Roderick Dixon and baritone Donnie Ray Albert) is almost unbearably gorgeous.

The exceptionally produced new recording, which once again features the May Festival Chorus (under the direction of Robert Porco) and the Cincinnati Symphony Orchestra (conducted by James Conlon), was performed in its entirety on May 9, 2014, as part of the Spring for Music Festival at Carnegie Hall in New York City. This beautifully produced and performed recording of Dett’s magnum opus was facilitated and broadcast nationally by WQXR FM, New York City’s classical music radio station.

03 Britten LucretiaBritten – The Rape of Lucretia (Glyndebourne)
Rice; Clayton; Royal; Rock; Rose; London Philharmonic Orchestra; Leo Hussain
Opus Arte OA 11219 D

Around 510 BC, Tarquinius, son of the Etruscan king of Rome, raped the Roman aristocrat Lucretia. The rape, and Lucretia’s honour-driven suicide, precipitated the rebellion that toppled the monarchy, launching the Roman Republic. So goes the legend, perhaps historically based, recorded in much later Roman annals and subsequently re-interpreted in poetry, paintings, plays and, in 1946, Britten’s first chamber opera, with eight vocalists and only 13 instrumentalists.

This 2015 Glyndebourne production won rave reviews from the British press, and no wonder. The singers are all vocally and dramatically terrific and the staging stark, powerful and moving. The innovative staging by director Fiona Shaw and set designer Michael Levine presents a military tent and archaeological site, darkly lit, in which the ancient events take place.

Shaw introduces two silent extras: Lucretia’s young daughter and a warcamp slave-prostitute. Most surprisingly, she has the Male and Female Chorus, as modern archaeologists, not only comment about the action, but in time-warp fashion, actually get physically involved with it! I usually deplore such deviations but here, they respect the spirit of Ronald Duncan’s libretto, while enhancing the very visceral dramatic impact.

Duncan’s libretto provides the opera’s only weakness, an epilogue sung by the Male and Female Chorus, replete with Christian religiosity, quite extraneous to the tragedy that has just unfolded. Extras include commentary by director Shaw, a brief documentary about the opera’s 1946 Glyndebourne premiere and a cast gallery.

Intensely gripping, strongly recommended.

04 Staniland Dark Star RequiemAndrew Staniland; Jill Battson – Dark Star Requiem
Neema Bickersteth; Krisztina Szabó; Peter McGillivray; Marcus Nance; Elmer Iseler Singers; Gryphon Trio; Ryan Scott; Mark Duggan; Wayne Strongman
Centrediscs CMCCD 22716
(musiccentre.ca)

In a 2010 review of a Luminato performance of Dark Star Requiem, Joseph K. So said “the text would have benefited from surtitles.” I’m afraid that a lack of libretto for this recording left me with a similar reaction. This is a shame, as I’m a huge McGillivray and Szabó fan. Also, when I interviewed librettist Jill Battson in 2010, I was intrigued by what she was doing with the 19 poems comprising the piece. These days, even English performances carry same-language surtitles, and perhaps this production would have been more accessible as a DVD release. Despite excellent enunciation by the soloists and Elmer Iseler Singers, the words are often overwhelmed by the music and miking from different distances, and I was only able to catch snippets of much of the text; even the parts of the Mass used in the libretto were lost to this Latinist, as was my concentration: it was too hard to hear this work holistically, trying to follow the sung and spoken words.

The music, however, is intriguing. Track 1, Zero Six One, is a chilling introduction to the work by highlighting the assigned numbers for HIV-1 and HIV-2 from the International Committee on Taxonomy of Viruses, and it brought to mind the song Three-Five-Zero-Zero, from the musical Hair. There’s something very affecting about using enumeration to humanize huge horrors. Unfortunately, the percussion seems to be competing with the singers throughout the CD; however, the Gryphon Trio’s strings play empathetically.

01 MonteverdiMonteverdi – Messa a quattro voci et salmi of 1650 Volume 1
The Sixteen; Harry Christophers
Coro COR16142

Seven years after Claudio Monteverdi’s death, the publisher Vincenti, with help from Monteverdi’s pupil Francesco Cavalli, put together a volume of the composer’s unpublished works, consisting of Mass and Psalm settings, to which they added a work of Cavalli’s own. In this first volume of two devoted to this 1650 publication, Harry Christophers focuses on the salmi (psalms), his Beatus vir and Cavalli’s Magnificat, saving the Messa a quattro voci for the second volume. The psalm settings are characteristic of the gorgeous, rich harmonies, with just a smattering of highly affective dissonance; innovations resulting from the transition from renaissance to baroque that Monteverdi pioneered through his long compositional career.

Harry Christophers and The Sixteen understand the repertoire well and perform the many affectations and embellishments with great beauty and exceptionally polished skill. For example, the polyphonic five-voice setting of Psalm 121, Laetatus sum (I was glad when they said unto me) is highly virtuosic and contrasts nicely with the six-voice, more declamatory Laetaniae della Beata Vergine (Litany of the Blessed Virgin) in which Mary’s many virtues are presented as somewhat of a list, but so meditative that one never feels even a hint of monotony in the repetition. With beauty such as this, Volume II is keenly anticipated.

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